It’s the turn of the 20th Century and electricity is big, with inventors just transitioning from steam to the magic power source. It’s the golden age of invention and none other than genius Nikola Tesla has challenged inventors from around the world to create their own fantastical machines and race through the Swiss Alps, winner to take the crown of World’s Best Inventor. Are you ready for the challenge?
That’s the premise of the delightful Steampunk Rally, a dice placement and resource allocation game designed by Orin Bishop and published by Roxley Games. 2-8 players pick an inventor and are given a starting machine that they have to expand and power to race through the random track through the Alps, trying to be the first to cross the finish line and win.
Rather than just write about the game, though, let’s look at it in play, then I’ll explain the game mechanic, because neither the instructions nor the highly entertaining, but unfortunately less than completely informative video from Roxley give you all the information you need to be able to play.
Let’s start by looking at the game. We’ve just started and I’m famed Japanese inventor Sakichi Toyoda. I’ve gotten off to a great start, but at the cost of having most of my machine tear itself apart with one rocket boost too many:
Not familiar with Toyoda? He invented the steam-powered loom in 1899 and his company eventually was renamed to Toyota. Yes, that Toyota.
You can see the race track in the middle of the table. It’s composed of six colorful tiles, a start, a finish line, a post-finish-line village, and three randomly chosen tiles of the five remaining. Flip it all over and it’s a completely different racetrack, the Paris Night Arena, but to get started, the Swiss Alps are easier to understand, though not without their challenges!
In front of me is Toyoda’s starting card. In fact, each inventor’s machine starts with two cards, I’ve just had one of them blow up on me, rather dishearteningly. But I can rebuild, and rebuild I will!
To the left of my machine is a metal cog. Cogs are used as currency in the game and allow you to do two critical things: remove dice that are used up but still stuck in your machine, and reroll dice to get more steam, coal or electricity, critical to having your machine proceed along the track. Below it is a light bulb chit. That’s used to, once per round, activate all machine components that are powered by the spark of invention. Look closely at the top right corner of Toyoda’s card and you’ll see a corresponding lightbulb icon to denote it’s in this category.
To the left of those is the damage wheel, which indicates how well you’ve armored your invention (if it’s greater than zero) or how badly you’ve banged up your machine (if it’s below zero). Here’s a slightly closer look at the wheel:
It’s a really neat mechanism and when you know you’re going to head through dangerous territory on the race (denoted on the board) it’s just smart to build up your defenses prior to heading forward.
The game progresses simultaneously for all players, so there’s precious little sitting around waiting for the other players to finish their turn, which is great as you add more players. Each round consists of “drafting”, “venting”, “racing” and “damage”, and your goal is to simultaneously ensure you have the fuel needed to power your invention (the dice represent fuel), the additional components to make your invention faster and tougher (each card is a component), the cogs required to help you dump used fuel and the boost cards that can help you leap ahead or survive when the going otherwise gets tough.
Draft phase involves each player receiving four cards, one from each of the four decks (boost and machine parts, the latter broken down into gold cards that have components to generate motion, silver cards that are components to generate fuel (dice), and copper cards with components that let you flexibly expand your machine.
Let’s have a look at Ada Lovelace’s winning machine, part way through the game:
See the half-circles on the edges of the cards? Those are valves, and you can only add new cards to your machine where the half-valves line up. That’s why the copper connector components are so darn important: without them your machine is doomed to be small and perform poorly.
In a fun nod to the classic Chinese game Mah Jongg, the draft phase begins with each player getting four cards from the decks, then picking the best one and playing it. Then the remaining three cards are passed to the next player, the best card picked and played, and the remainder passed again. That turns out to be quite fun.
Let’s look more closely at a corner of Ada’s invention:
For now, focus on the top right component, the Aerostat. In the draft phase when you’re picking and playing cards, one of the options you have is to discard the card and then pick the sale value benefit from those listed on the top right. For this card it’s either two yellow (electricity) dice for your dice pool, or two cogs. The component is a great addition to your machine, however, because it’s fueled by red (steam) dice and produces motion and protection from damage (the winged wheel and the shield icons).
There’s a catch, though: see the 5-pip die? That means that you’ll place your red dice on this particular component, then divide the sum of those dice by 5 to figure out how many times the component is triggered. In other words, if you put three dice, a 6, 4 and 3, you’ll only get to move and increase your protection twice (13/5 rounded down = 2 activations).
Part of the balancing act of Steampunk Rally is figuring out when you need to acquire fuel through discards and when you need to add on components that can produce fuel themselves. How does the latter work? One example is Ada’s cockpit card: Triggered by the bulb chit, it can produce either one steam dice and one cog, or three cogs. See how that’s denoted?
The Steam Turbine on the lower left is therefore straightforward to understand now: You place blue (steam) dice on the component, divide the sum of their values by 3, and that’s how many times you get to move forward on the track. I’m showing a 5 and 1, so I moved forward two slots through the Alps when I placed those two dice.
Before we leave this card detail, notice that if you look at the top right of the different cards, they can yield different dice, yellow, red or blue. Running out of fuel is a common problem in the game, so pay attention to your dice pool as you go through the draft phase, playing, discarding and swapping unchosen cards.
The vent phase is skipped the very first round, but it’s one of the most important phases in the game because it’s when you spend those cogs to get rid of expended fuel. If you don’t get rid of those used up dice, they’ll just sit on your invention, taking up slots but accomplishing nothing: each die is only usable once. Each cog lets you subtract two from the dice’s current value, and when it gets to zero, it’s removed. So the 3 pip die above would cost two cogs to remove, and the six-pip is a painful 3 cogs to remove. That’s a lotta cog!
Note: the Kickstarter version of Steampunk Rally includes real metal cogs, as shown. They’re really awesome, a great addition to a game with already cool components. The other addition that Kickstarter backers got were the translucent dice, as shown in the photos accompanying this article.
Once everyone’s completed the vent phase it’s time to race! To do that, roll all the dice in your dice pool (you did remember to get some, didn’t you?) then activate machine components and take the result of their activations, whether it produces additional dice you can then roll and place, helps you vent spent fuel dice, makes your invention tougher or actually moves you forward! Don’t forget, if you cross over terrain with a damage indicator, subtract the damage from your damage wheel.
Finally, phase four is damage: each player checks their damage wheel and if it’s below zero, they have to jettison one component (card) of their invention per damage value. So if you went pell-mell through the mountains without a thought for the dangerous terrain you can easily lose 2, 3 or more parts of your otherwise brilliant invention. Dump all the unused dice in your dice pool (yeah, no saves other than with specific invention elements that allow it) and you’re ready for the next phase.
Steampunk Rally took us a while to figure out and it wasn’t until we’d watched a few YouTube videos on the game that we understood all the steps involved in gameplay. Once that “aha!” lightbulb goes off, however, it’s really quite fun and relatively easy to understand. The components are all very high quality and have a great aesthetic too:
The game’s a keeper, and my gaming pal was so excited and enthused that they went online and ordered a copy for themselves that very same evening! That’s an endorsement!
I haven’t played with more than just two players and I can see that having 4, 5 or more is going to be pretty crazy, with lots going on at the same time. But that’ll be great fun and having a game on the shelf that supports up to 8 players is a real win as so many max out at 5 players, leaving things very awkward when there are 6 of you…
My biggest complaint with Steampunk Rally is that the instructions aren’t quite enough to understand what’s going on with the game, and even on BoardGameGeek.com there are many discussions about nuances of the rules. Roxley Games is aware of this and produced a video instead, but while the video is ridiculously fun and impressively polished, it too doesn’t go through every element of every phase of a turn, so there are parts left out entirely that are critical to getting started with the game.
Once you figure out the rules and gameplay, however, the race is afoot! And it’s great fun.
Steampunk Rally. Designed by Orin Bishop and published by Roxley Games. Available on Amazon.com for $35.00.
Disclaimer: Roxley Games sent me a copy of this game for review purposes.